Only a decade ago, animosity between states in the Missouri River's upper and lower basins was out of control. If the states weren't suing each other over Missouri River flows, they were attacking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for that agency's management of the river system. South Dakota Gov. William Janklow grumbled that the Corps "throws us the crumbs and operates the way downstream states want (the river) operated." South Dakotans wore baseball caps that proclaimed "The Corps Sucks," and the upper basin states, led by Janklow, unsuccessfully sought to change the Missouri's dam management policies in Congress and the courts.
Now, apparently, peace, if not
brotherhood, unites the former combatants. An agreement between
river basin states, brokered by the Missouri River Basin
Association, provides the Corps of Engineers with a new approach to
river management. Richard Opper, executive director of the
association, applauded the agreement. "We still have issues to
resolve, and we always will," he said, "but the fact remains that
we have just taken a major step toward solving some of the most
difficult and contentious issues we face."
However, just as the coalition of eight states
and 30 Indian tribes seemingly made peace, a new antagonist entered
the debate: an environmental group. It says the agreement does
little to help the river's endangered species and other fish and
wildlife, and provides only minimal protection to upper basin
"The only consensus about this plan,"
said Chad Smith, a spokesman for American Rivers, "is that it will
accelerate the death spiral that native fish and wildlife on the
Missouri River find themselves in."
other environmentalists want to see wildlife habitat restored to a
river system that has been damaged by decades of development. Dams
and reservoirs in the Dakotas and Montana drowned about 1 million
acres of the most diverse habitat on the northern plains, while
channelization, straightening and flood control measures along the
lower river eliminated 70 miles of main channel, as well as
islands, wetlands and sand bars. Once the dams and levees were in
place, farmers cut down riverside forests in the former floodplain
and planted crops.
But the Corps of Engineers is
pleased by the compromise between river states. "The (basin
association) produced some valuable recommendations that we will
take very seriously as we draft our new management plan for the
Missouri River," said Larry Cieslik, chief of the Reservoir Control
Center for the Corps' Missouri River office, in Omaha,
The Missouri River Basin Association, which
includes a representative from each of the eight states - both
Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri - as
well as one representative from the basin's nearly 30 Indian
tribes, has existed since 1981. Not until last summer's agreement,
however, was there any sign of harmony. A sticking point has been
reservoir levels. Upper basin states want to keep reservoirs high
and stable to protect a thriving fishing and recreation industry.
Lower basin states want enough water flowing in their section of
the river to float cargo-carrying barges.
other major navigation rivers, there are no locks and dams on the
Missouri's navigation reach. Water levels are kept deep by releases
from the river's major dams, four of which are in South Dakota,
with one each in North Dakota and Montana. The flows surge through
the lower basin in a channel that is more ditch than river. During
the dry 1980s, the Corps dramatically lowered upper basin
reservoirs, damaging stocked fisheries and recreation businesses.
That led to the lawsuits launched by Gov. Janklow, and the suits
caused the Corps to re-examine its dam management
The compromise proposed by the basin
association would halt navigation on the river and lower the
reservoirs more slowly during severe drought. Although Richard
Opper hailed this as a breakthrough, Chad Smith said that the
protection gained by upper basin states was slight. "The agreement
translates into only about five more feet of water in the
reservoirs during a drought like the 1980s," explained Smith,
before adding that the agreement only deals with managing the river
during drought conditions.
"Severe drought comes
only twice a century to the basin," said Smith. "The rest of the
time, navigation still runs the river."
Rivers has asked the Corps to adopt a split season for navigation
that would allow shippers to use the river. That, said the
organization, would protect reservoirs during the busiest
recreation season, and also allow river managers to simulate the
river's former spring rise to help recreate pre-dam conditions on
the river. Among other effects, they hope a spring rise will
trigger reproduction in surviving native
Some environmentalists say Missouri
navigation is insignificant and should be eliminated. While barges
on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers carry more than 300 million and
100 million tons of commercial cargo each year, respectively,
Missouri River shippers haul less than 5 million tons per year.
Only two shipping companies regularly use the
Richard Opper acknowledged that the
compromise will never completely satisfy any special interest.
"Such is the price of middle ground," he
Opper's middle ground, however, may get
soggy. The state of Missouri, an adamant defender of barges on the
Missouri, is reportedly nervous about the modest concessions made
to the upper basin states in the agreement, and is considering
backing out. It is also unclear if the compromise will satisfy the
Endangered Species Act. Almost certainly, that question will be put
before the courts when the Corps releases its plan. Already several
years behind schedule, the plan might not be released for another
year or two.
Peter Carrels writes
from Aberdeen, South Dakota.
This story was
supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation on consensus,
collaboration and community-based
You can contact
* Larry Cieslik (chief of Missouri River
reservoir control), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,
* Paul Johnston (public affairs),
Corps of Engineers, 402/697-2552;
Opper, MRBA, 406/538-4369;
* Chad Smith, American